A big think about writing

I’ve been having a (post-NaNo) BIG THINK about my writing. I finished my last (OU) creative writing course in May (A363 Advanced Creative Writing) and though I’ve written a lot of words since then I have only submitted one short story (4000 words) – deemed ‘intriguing’ but ‘difficult to place’ by the editor I sent it to in June and who refrained from telling me until September that he wasn’t going to publish it. So I’ve sat on this story for a while (almost as long as he did) and – with NaNo finished – decided now was the perfect time to reassess the whole goddam writing thing.

The issue isn’t whether or not I should write, but – having had a few pieces of flash fiction and poetry published online and in print, where do I want to go from here? Should I do an MA or should I just write? And if I (just) write, what sort of writing should I do? More flash fiction? Longer short stories? Poetry? A novel?

This is when I began to realise that I was asking myself the wrong questions. Whilst I have been writing, I have been reluctant to edit – and when I asked myself why, I realised that it was because of what my writing was about.

My writing is essentially character-based, and often dark. I am not a plot-driven writer, I am a left-brained creative who struggles with logic and a linear approach to anything. I’m a lateral and intuitive thinker, a sensitive soul, a people-watcher. This is how I figure things out; writing is my way of making sense of the stuff I see and hear out there in the world.

But after all the thinking I’ve done, all the notes I’ve written, all the writing I’ve done, all the friends I’ve discussed this with, I’ve read two books that have changed things.

My first epiphany came while reading Doug Coupland‘s Generation X (and subsequently Generation A, which I’m half-way through). I could write a novel in which nothing really happens. No – truly, it is OK – he has done it, in a very clever way and it is an amazing read. I only wish I’d discovered him ten years ago.

The second epiphany happened the other night whilst reading one of Salt‘s most recent publications: Short Circuit – a book of essays about the art of writing short fiction, edited by Vanessa Gebbie.  I’ve only read three of the essays but these have been reassuring, illuminating and liberating (and I can’t wait to read the rest):

Tania Hershman in her essay, Art breathes from containment … sums up (flash fiction) by saying, ‘there is nothing that flash fiction cannot be, there is no prohibition on style, content, tone, pace, point of view, linear or non-linear narrative.’

Elizabeth Baines essay, True story, real story – good fiction (despite personal reluctance and with great authorial generosity) provides insight into her writing process and explains how she absorbs real life experiences and reconstructs them as fiction. This was particularly reassuring not just because my creative process is so similar to hers but also because it connects with another – the most daunting – of my writing ‘issues’, the ‘what it’s about’ which Alison MacLeod addresses in her essay, Writing and risk-taking.

She begins, ‘there will be good reasons not to write almost every story that you care about writing …’ Tell me about it, I was already thinking out loud at this point.

She says, ‘I often find myself drawn to writing about characters who are attracted to something that is taboo.’ OK, well what I write about isn’t exactly taboo, but the characters can be edgy, my stories often exhume the character’s psychological or emotional issues, but as Alison says, (this)

‘can create a complex emotional world (and) … contradictory feelings are jet-fuel for stories; they immediately give a story the tension of opposing emotions and they are also, in their messiness, particularly true to life.’

WOOHOO. This last essay was the one I found the most liberating. Yes I will take the risks I want to take with my characters and my stories, and furthermore I will take the risk that my stories – though ‘intriguing’, might be ‘difficult to place’, but if that is how I write, – and if someone enjoys what I’ve written and sees some value in it – then it will have been worth the risk.

So thank you to Tania, Elizabeth and Alison, I am now officially ‘unstuck’ – and a huge thank you to Salt for publishing this brilliant book.

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10 Comments

  1. I so much empathise with the questions here – although I am still as yet unpublished, so feel I can lay claim to more doubts 😉 I’d love to do an MA, but I suspect that is partly to avoid the other, deeper questions. No one asks you to justify why exactly you are spending so much time on something if it leads to a qualification, I suppose. Including me.

    I’m currently in the middle of reading Short Circuit too, and I’m finding it inspiring.

    But my ambition has always been to write a novel. Until nanowrimo, the longest single piece I’d ever written was five thousand words… I’ve learned a lot from that, but am still nervouse of taking that leap.

    My plan was to write a lot of stories – following Ray Bradbury’s advice, I felt I would learn more that way, and maybe in the process get one or two published…and then go on to write my novel when I was a more accomplished writer.

    Now I wonder if perhaps that is just wrong. Novels are very different to short stories and require different skills, and I hadn’t really thought about how much time it would take to try to find suitable markets for short stories. Or the cost to enter the short story competitions.

    So I’m still pondering and lacking direction.

    Ann

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  2. Thanks Ann – I’ve been thinking about an MA but decided that even though it was something I’d wanted to do for years, it probably wouldn’t improve my writing even though I’m sure it would benefit in many other ways. But getting your head round your own writing is something only you can do.

    Each genre requires a different way of looking at the world, that’s taken me some time to figure out, and I think Susan M put it well when she said (and if she reads this I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her!) … ‘flash fiction is life under a lens, a novel is a bird’s eye view, the short story is somewhere in the middle’.

    My way of looking at it is that each story will dictate its own length. Once it’s complete – and only then – is probably the right time to look for a prospective and suitable home for it? Hope that helps?

    Diane

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  3. Yes, I think it does. I suspect ina way there is an element of laziness though – clearly there’s an enormous time investment in a novel.

    I’ve just made my first real attempt at flash fiction, and judging from the responses I’ve had it was quite succesful – at any rate it evokes the kind of emotional response I was going for.

    But actually the origin was a scene I wrote as part of my novel in progress – it was a scene I wrote for the end of the novel, where my character makes a difficult choice and has to give up something that matters intensely to her. To make it work for flash fiction I had to strip everything away that I know about that character and her background and all that matters in the 200 words is the sadness of the choice she makes. But it has a strange intensity because of that, and if I ever finish the novel I think the same scene would mean something very different in that larger context, even though it is at the ehart of my vision for the book.

    It’s funny thing though, this writing is the hardest work I’ve ever done, but I am really enjoying it.

    And I think you are right about the MA not necessarily improving the writing – but I still want to do it. Perhaps one day…

    Ann

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  4. I think it’s interesting that your piece of flash fiction is the emotional core of the book, yet it would appear very differently in the larger context of a novel – I think I’m drawn more to flash/short fiction because you can shape it so precisely – it’s very much like (visual) art to me. Coincidentally, my first published piece of flash came out of last year’s nano, maybe you should send out this one?!

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  5. Last time I looked it was exactly 200 words so I thought I’d send it to the Ambit competition

    http://www.ambitmagazine.co.uk/200words.htm

    I think I’m prepared to risk £4.00 on it…and it gives me time to tinker with it a bit more first. I do find it difficult to part with them…

    I do think I’ll carry on having some more fun with flash though. Because it is so short I don’t think it will interfere so much with getting on with that novel. And rather like writing poetry, I think it’s good exercise for the writing muscles – especially the ones to do with rhythm, and precision, and conciseness,

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